international development

Sister: An Unflinching Look at Maternal Health Worldwide

Title still for Sister, showing the word "Sister" over a world mapby Roxanna Bennett

“Pregnancy is a normal physiological event,” states Goitom Berhane, a health officer in residency at a rural hospital in Ethiopia. “This is not a disease. It is only that society is not organized enough to handle it, to appreciate its risks. It has risks whether it’s in Europe or Africa. Wherever you are, pregnancy is always a challenge.”

An unflinching look at the stark and bloody reality of infant and maternal mortality, the new documentary Sister follows maternal health care workers in Ethiopia, Haiti and Cambodia. Beautifully shot, Sister captures both agonizing and ecstatic moments in birth and delivery. from a woman whose fetus is dead inside of her, to a successful emergency Caesarian operation.

In the U.S., one in 4,800 women die from childbirth-related causes. The statistics in other parts of the world are staggering. In Haiti, one in 48 women will die of childbirth related causes. In Cambodia, one in 44 women will die of childbirth related causes. In Ethiopia, one in 27 women will die of childbirth related causes – that’s 55 every day. Sister is the story behind the statistics, putting a human face on the very real suffering and death of women and infants across the planet.

Photo of Madam Bwa, maternal health worker in Haiti

Madam Bwa, photo by Alexandra Swati Guild

Madam Bwa, a 65 year old TBA (Traditional Birth Attendant), living in Haiti, started delivering babies when she was 12 years old.

“I have delivered about 12, 000 babies,” she boasts. While she has no formal medical training, she provides the the majority of primary maternal and prenatal health care and education in her community.

“God blessed me to serve the people in this community,” she says, “Mostly to prevent them from dying during delivery.”

“Shada is the most miserable part of the city,” Madam Bwa says as she navigates the narrow alleyways between rickety shelters, “It’s badly built. If you have to transport a sick or pregnant person there are no roads in Shada.” Read more

Posted on by Roxanna Bennett in Feminism Leave a comment

Empowerment Through Swimming

swimmingby Matilda Branson

Every year, 175,000 children throughout the world die from drowning. This makes drowning the second of the top five causes of injury death in children worldwide, second only to road crashes.  But where does this fit in with, say, gender or development? Bear with me, dear friends.

Coming from Australia, learning to swim and surf were an inherent part of growing up. Most children are dragged through insurmountable survival swim classes from the age of four onwards. They learn to tread water, swim kilometres in pools fully clothed imagining: “If I fell off a boat, what would I do?” scenarios, chucking ropes and any flotation devices (read: plastic milk bottles, buckets, kickboards, anything at hand) at each other, handling currents and learning to conserve energy, not to panic and how to save both yourself and others in risky water situations.

Even growing up in a rural farming area in inland Australia far from the sea, we learned the four survival strokes and complex dives – which to use when there is an oil spill in the ocean and which to use when there may be sharp rocks beneath you leaping from a fast-moving speedboat. If James Bond can do it, apparently kids from rural Australia whose closest water source is a cattle trough should be able to as well. Just in case.

As a girl, learning to swim taught me many other things: I learned that baring my body in bathers in front of boys I liked didn’t result in my melting into a puddle like the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, and it also showed me we all kind of look similar under all the various fashions we wore. The sheer usefulness of tampons instead of sanitary pads was most obvious when I had to swim on my period. I could hold my breath for longer than anyone – even longer than the jock boys – which equalled immediate schoolyard respect. The positive unintended lessons learned from swimming lessons just go on and on.

In Nepal last week I competed in a triathlon through the Himalayas, where I needed to swim 1.5km across a mountain lake, Lake Begnas. A few days later, in this same lake, three people died and another three people are missing after a fishing boat capsized. I swam across that lake using a curious combination of survival backstroke, breaststroke and sidestroke. I could swim across Lake Begnas because I was a lucky Australian kid from a water-crazy island whose parents took me to swim lessons for many years. Those three people died because they didn’t know how to swim, because there was never the opportunity to learn.

I’ve recently been mulling over the potential benefits of swimming lessons and education for young boys and girls in the context of international development. More and more I believe that learning to swim – especially if you live in an environment surrounded by or in constant contact with rivers, lakes or oceans – is a fundamental human right. It fits snugly under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ principles, such as the right to live in safety or the right to opportunities to develop one’s skills. Read more

Posted on by Matilda Branson in Feminism 1 Comment

Thinking of Children in International Development

Photo of child working at brick kiln factory by Matilda Branson

Photo of child working at brick kiln factory by Matilda Branson

by Matilda Branson

Working in gender issues, I sometimes push the children’s rights stuff to the side for UNICEF or Save the Children to deal with, or leave the child labour issues in the hands of the International Labor Organisation. I put it all into a mental box labelled “child rights stuff”, separate to all the gender and women’s rights things I work on day to day.

But ye gods, surely this is the Achilles’ heel of international development, the old approach of silo-ing everything into separate fields – women’s rights separate to children’s rights, water and sanitation separate to education, public health separate to economic empowerment. It’s crazy because everything overlaps, and a holistic approach has to be the name of the game, right? Of course child rights issues cross-cut gender and equality.

Sweat shops in India, child soldiers in Uganda, child pornography, the exploitation of children… In the world of international development, working side-by-side with child-focused organisations like World Vision and UNICEF and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and child-specific Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) like MDG 2 – “Achieving universal primary education” or MDG 4 “Reducing child mortality rates”– it sometimes seems that “children’s issues” are the easiest to tackle. There’s a reason sponsor-a-child campaigns are so successful – no one likes to let kids suffer and so many interventions for kids are needs-based.

Yet last month, I went on a monitoring visit to a brick kiln factory on the outskirts of Kathmandu in Nepal where I work, with an organisation named Animal Nepal, to investigate the working conditions of the many donkeys, mules and small ponies which cart devastatingly heavy loads of unbaked bricks to and from the huge chimney-like brick kiln to be cooked.

Brick kiln factories are where the bricks that are building a rapidly urbanising Kathmandu are made. But the cruel animal labour aside, horrible enough within itself, these factories are also home to young seasonal labourers –as young as six-years-old. These workers are young kids from poor rural families desperate to earn money, children sent as bonded labourers, or children living in poverty from India who hear through a middleman that they can make a buck over the border in Kathmandu. These are the children upon whose backs the brick industry is built in Nepal. Read more

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